Revisiting the Heights

Confederation Park, Burnaby Heights, Friday morning

At the suggestion of a reader, I returned to Burnaby Heights this past week, five years after my first visit to the community.

Hastings Street in northwest Burnaby is the city’s most interesting commercial strip, with an array of ethnic food outlets, cafes and specialty shops. The urban trees have grown up quickly, providing cover for architectural flaws. The border with the City of Vancouver is just blocks away, with frequent bus service to downtown. Burnaby’s city government has laid on excellent services such as playing fields, an aquatic centre and a big library. All this makes a great foundation for an urban village, if you’re prepared for the heavy traffic and noise as you shop or stroll.

The direction for the future is clear. Older one-storey commercial structures on Hastings are disappearing, replaced by low-rise complexes with storefronts below and three floors of apartments above. The former Royal Canadian Legion property is newly vacant, along with much of the north side of Hastings between Rosser and Willingdon, including the site of the old Dolphin movie theatre. As with other high streets in a region where there’s extreme upward pressure on property values, we have to wonder whether any locally-owned retail business can survive this transition.

As I noted in my 2012 post, the designated Burnaby Heights development area is long and skinny. This can be observed on the ground or picked up from the City’s development plan.  You’ll see evolving mixed use along Hastings Street from Boundary to Gamma. Albert Street, running parallel to Hastings one block to the north, provides densified housing that will help to support storefront business, although none of it is new except for a few duplex houses. Several rental apartment buildings from about 1970 are in decay.

South of Hastings and north of Albert, the City of Burnaby appears to prohibit the construction of anything other than detached houses, although there are doubtless a growing number of secondary suites within these houses.

To sum up, there is less housing choice in this otherwise attractive urban village than there could be, unless you’re interested in renting a basement suite or purchasing a five-bedroom house for a price of two to three million dollars.

Newly completed mixed-used complex, Hastings near Alpha

Duplex housing in Vancouver Special style, early 1960s (?), Albert Street

Fewer than 21 per cent of dwellings in Burnaby are single detached homes,  meaning that all others are either apartments or attached houses (i.e. duplexes or townhomes). The city government clearly accepts the demand for apartments, but is stacking them in highway-oriented towers (see my post on Brentwood Centre) rather than low-rise buildings in the neighbourhoods. Feel free to correct me if I’m mistaken, but Burnaby Council appears determined to view the city’s broad tracts of single-use housing as a privileged ecosystem.

Our friends at Metro Conversations hosted a forum on May 17 called “The Sacred Single Family Home: What are we trying to protect and why?” They drew a packed house at a venue in Lynn Valley, North Vancouver. As reported in Business in Vancouver, planners and developers spoke in favour of increased housing choice across the region, at least to the extent of permitting duplexes and townhomes. Urbanist and developer Michael Geller suggested that city governments are standing in the way. “Most builders will build that single-family house and sell it for $3.5 million,” he said, “Rather than go through the aggravation and heartache to build something that’s more creative and perhaps much more needed.”

Co-tourist R.J Smarz and I had breakfast at the Chez Meme Baguette Bistro on Hastings Street. It was charming.

[Burnaby Heights was originally posted as #6 in our Urban Villages series. We have reviewed the area’s 2011 index score and left it about unchanged.]

Hastings, corner of Gilmore, with a rare mixed-use survivor from the 1920s

Postwar detached house, Albert Street

Hastings, corner of Rosser

They’re stackin’ ’em in at Brentwood

Space between apartment towers off Rosser Avenue in Burnaby’s Brentwood district, looking to Gilmore

A rendering of the Shape Properties “Amazing Brentwood” development plan as published in VanCity Buzz

The City of Burnaby is on track to win an award, if it exists, for the most extreme residential densification in western Canada.

Tower development at Metrotown has leapt into an affordable rental housing zone and displaced hundreds of long-term tenants. People protesting against these “demovictions” occupied the office of Mayor Derek Corrigan in early March. At Lougheed Town Centre further east, Shape Properties has set up a site office for “The City of Lougheed”, promising 23 or more “stunning high-rise towers” in close proximity, stretching as high as 55 storeys. The same developer has started construction on “Amazing Brentwood”, depicted here, to include 11 residential towers as well as a redeveloped shopping mall and street-facing retail space. Continue reading

Demolition in a vintage rental neighbourhood

High Style Living

Five years after tower construction first jumped the Skytrain line at Metrotown, the City of Burnaby continues to enable the destruction of 1950s and ’60s era rental housing in the area.

Rick McGowan, a neighbourhood activist and townhome owner, estimates that 560 rental units have been replaced by owner-occupied condo towers, or are slated for demolition. More worrying, he says, is the fact that there is no end in sight. Continue reading

Walking in circles at Lougheed Town Centre

The Lougheed Town Centre mall with 1970s apartment towers

The Lougheed Town Centre mall with 1970s apartment towers

Who would choose a mall parking lot as a place to take a walk?

By the common definition, Lougheed Town Centre is a second-tier mall at the eastern edge of the city of Burnaby, with a Walmart and a London Drugs. Alternatively, it’s a nearby rapid transit station and a different set of parking lots. Continue reading

Accepting the shift in Burnaby Edmonds

Residential towers adjacent to the High Gate Centre, Edmonds

Residential towers at Highgate, Edmonds

With a population of 234,000, Burnaby is the third-largest city in Metro Vancouver and in British Columbia. It has no single centre. City Hall sits in science fiction isolation beside tranquil Deer Lake and its park. Commercial and residential growth is focused in “town centres,” three of which are anchored by enormous shopping malls: Brentwood, Lougheed and especially Metrotown.

Edmonds, a fourth town centre, is the runt of the litter. I travelled there to measure its shapeKingsway 3 and size in summer 2014,  landing at Greenford Ave. and setting out along the south side of  Kingsway. Other than a block of shops on the north side, Kingsway seemed kind of a mess, mixing automotive lots with ageing towers.

I held out hope that Edmonds Street, narrower and quieter, would offer  more charm. Edmonds and Kingsway was the site of the first Burnaby municipal hall, built in 1899 when this was still a rural district. Edmonds Street, five kilometres east of Metrotown, has some of the makings of a village shopping street, supported by decent public transit and a stock of nearby walk-up apartment buildings. Continue reading


Kingsway, looking west from Nelson, Burnaby, B.C.Metrotown, a square-mile precinct in the City of Burnaby, was conceived as a zone of medium-to-high density development. It’s well-served by transit, has a huge variety of services within a walkable radius, and an ethnically diverse population of 25,000 or more. Its arterial streets and indoor shopping don’t warm my heart, but who knows what tomorrow may bring?

The city’s area plan describes Metrotown as “a town centre serving the southeast quadrant” of a municipality of 225,000. This is too modest. Metrotown’s key property, The Metropolis at Metrotown, is Canada’s second-largest enclosed shopping centre, with vast caverns of free parking and rapid transit lines stopping at the door.  The Metrotowers are home to the regional government and regional transportation authorities. Transit service and a location just outside the City of Vancouver have made the precinct a magnet for towers; it is currently booming, perhaps the most active site for property development in the Lower Mainland. Continue reading

Hoping for the best in the Heights

The Heights village in Burnaby grew up along a streetcar line that was built during the Canadian land boom and crash of 1911-1912.  Great history, and some great little shops, some dating from the Italian immigration of the 1940s and 50s.  I’m sure people have fond memories of this place; I feel regret in producing reasons why it doesn’t seem to work as well as it could.

The nature of the building fronts is patchy, with a few moderately brutal 1970s and 1980s blocks. The City of Burnaby revised and strengthened  its plan for the section of Hastings Street between Boundary to Willingdon in 1992.  The village designation was extended four blocks to the east in 2008.  The key principle is to encourage mixed-use development on Hastings, with housing up and retail down.  But one street does not a village make; Albert Street, one block north, is part of the village plan, and it offers some housing choices, and there is a fine library and recreation centre close by, but otherwise the area streets seem frozen in single-family detached mode. Continue reading